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Saturday, 31 July 2010

Birthday Fun and Wet Feet at Sam's Chop House, Manchester

Whenever I plan a night out, the weather that accompanies my reverie is invariably perfect, permitting me to float gracefully through the imagined occasion attired in some kind of diaphanous dress and really, really excellent shoes. As usual, the Manchester weather failed to play along (you'd think I'd have learned by now, but no), reserving its absolute worst for last night's trip to Sam's Chop House in honour of my husband's birthday. Sartorial advice requested via Twitter was duly but not helpfully dispensed, with much mention of "elasticated" and "galoshes". Pah.

Still, gamely clad in a fairly random outfit of summer dress and thick black winter tights (just me, not the husband) we splashed our way to our first destination, Room, in order to take advantage of their half-price champagne offer before our dinner reservation. Unfortunately, the lure of champagne at £18 a bottle seemed to have tempted the whole of Manchester to stop off there after work rather than brave the rain, and the bar was packed with great gangs of braying men with their shirtsleeves rolled up and their mobile phones placed prominently on the tables; we beat a hasty retreat.

All Bar One was similarly crammed, and we were increasingly wet and cross. Then, an epiphany. The Moet bar at Selfridges is NEVER busy, either because people don't know about it, or because they think the drinks will be hideously expensive. The bar, if anything, was even quieter than usual, an oasis of calm with its beautiful views over Exchange Square, and sufficiently few people to allow me to take my shoes off and dry my feet off.

Good moods restored, it was time for Sam's Chop House, my husband's choice of birthday venue for the following reasons:

1. The food here is good. This is surely the only restaurant that would have the nerve to charge £5.95 for a bowl of onion soup, and for that soup to be worth every penny.

2. The food here comes in healthy, man-sized portions. Although, rather worryingly, I managed three courses effortlessly last night - must have been the rainy sprint across Manchester that worked up such an appetite.

3. The food here is resolutely non-fancy - think steaks, pies and puddings. For starters, I had the infamous corned beef hash: forget the unpleasant image of a quivering pink blob of tin-shaped terror that may remain from your childhood, and embrace corned beef done Sam's way - ten days in the making, and served with a poached egg and home-made brown sauce.

Mains were full of meaty goodness; steak and kidney pudding with mushy peas, and sirloin steak with tomatoes and mushrooms. Both served with gorgeous big fat chips, of course. The puddings were perhaps the weakest link, with the Pimms jelly a little on the small side, and rather overshadowed by the glorious strawberry and cucumber sorbet that accompanied but completely squashed the subtle flavour of the Pimms.

The total bill for three courses and a decent bottle of wine was just over £80, including service; some would argue great value for a city centre venue serving lovingly prepared food, while others may see Sam's as serving over-priced glorified pub food. Still, all the more for us if they stay away.

One final thing: if you were the lovely former student who served us, and greeted me with the comment "I bet you don't remember me", I DID remember you, I just couldn't recall your name at that pressurised moment. Every teacher's nightmare - I knew that I taught you for AS Lang & Lit, I knew what year, what class, and even which teacher I shared the class with. In the end, a sleepless night was avoided as I remembered your first name on the way out, and your surname on the the way home. Sorry Kim.

- Sam's Chop House is at Chapel Walks, Manchester M2 1HN, tel. 0161 834 3210.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

My Productive Life: John Rylands Elizabeth Gaskell Exhibition & Creative Tourist Writing Workshop

Having six weeks off is excellent and I'm not complaining, I'm really not. But. The problem with having six weeks off is that after it has whizzed by in a matter of seconds, people WILL keep asking what exactly you got up to in all that time off work; surely you must have achieved quite a number of worthwhile things? Going back to work is even worse, as you discover that your colleagues have apparently back-packed round Ecuador, written a best-selling novel, climbed a selection of very tall mountains, and founded several orphanages. And what have I done? Well, I, er, read some books, and went to the sea-side, and, erm, drank a lot of wine and watched lots of cricket on TV.

So this year is going to be different: I too am going to return to work having DONE STUFF. The good work began yesterday, with a visit to John Rylands Library on Deansgate to see the current exhibition in honour of Manchester-based novelist Elizabeth Gaskell. To be honest, it was a teensy bit disappointing: a small room which very quickly became crowded with ladies of a certain age talking loudly about how much they'd enjoyed watching Cranford on TV. No doubt this is entirely fitting for a popular novelist whose stories were often serialised for mass consumption, but still; if I was a writer of note who happened to have been born exactly 200 years ago, I would hope for a little more than a few letters on display in glass cases. The library itself is beautiful though, so you should go anyway.

Today I have also been gainfully occupied, on a writing workshop held by the marvellous people at Creative Tourist, an online arts magazine that everyone in Manchester (and beyond) should read. It's always a little scary to meet people in the flesh when you have previously only conversed via Twitter, but everyone was shiny and beautiful, and even looked a tiny bit like their avatars. Thanks to Kate, Susie and Shan for a great course; see how I have been inspired to write something already (please ignore the fact it's the same old stuff.)

Tomorrow, however, culture looks a little thin on the ground. I have created a monstrous husband (in my own image) who expects to celebrate his (non-milestone) birthday for the entire weekend, beginning tomorrow. So, I went to an exhibition, a writing workshop and I, er, drank wine...

- Elizabeth Gaskell: A Connected Life is on at John Rylands Library until 28 November 2010; full details at

- Creative Tourist can be found at; go and see them now.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Prizes, Sherlock Holmes and Love2Eat Monday Night Supper Club

Mondays are often a poor day; the start of the working week (and a day I normally teach till 5) with the weekend not even visible on the horizon. Today, though, was a quite extraordinarily good Monday, for the following reasons:

1. I am on holiday for another four weeks.

2. It is my husband's birthday week, so a spirit of celebration currently pervades our sometimes grumpy residence.

3. Sunday night TV, normally so rubbish, last night offered up a Sherlock Holmes in a coat so sexy that grown women across Britain wept, and crashed Twitter with their uncontrollable admiration.

4. I have never won ANYTHING in my whole life (honestly, not even a raffle) and yet today I have won a place on a Creative Tourist writing workshop this Thursday (more of this on Friday, assuming I actually survive) AND a box of gorgeous cupcakes courtesy of Airy Fairy Cupcakes (more of this tomorrow, assuming I can actually get past my husband's grasping paws to sample said cakes). Both of these were competitions found on Twitter, which I have time to peruse at great length thanks to point 1.

5. We have finally made it to Monday Night Supper Club at the delectable Love2Eat Deli in West Didsbury, an occasion I have hankered after for some weeks: main course, pudding and a glass of wine for a ludicrous £7 per head. This is a charming venue which concentrates on offering straightforward food at reasonable prices; tonight's choices for supper club were Mushroom Stroganoff or Sicilian Meatballs for main, followed by Eton Mess for dessert.

Being committed carnivores, we obviously chose the meatballs, which have acquired legendary status in the environs of West Didsbury and tend to run out early doors; a friend who shall remain nameless (HELEN) has actually reserved hers because she can't get there until almost nine tonight (in fact, go and look at her now, slurping meatballs as you eat your mushroom stroganoff). They ARE delicious, and are served with spaghetti, bread, salad and grated cheese; beware though, that they are messy - we both came home with tell-tale pinky splashes on our clothing.

The pudding was less triumphant - the Eton Mess seemed more like strawberries and cream to me, with any meringue (minimal, I fear) crushed up so small it disappeared without trace. However, at these prices it seems churlish to quibble about small things, particularly as I ordered an extra glass of wine that then appeared on the bill as costing £2.75 (take note, Metropolitan). To cap a perfect evening, the lovely lady from Airy Fairy Cupcakes knew I was going to the restaurant and therefore personally delivered my cakes there for me; a very, very good day indeed.

- Love2Eat is at 190a Burton Road, West Didsbury, Manchester M20 1LH; tel 0161 434 7077.
- Airy Fairy Cupcakes are based in Didsbury; see for prices and delivery details.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Crazy Ladies Sign Up for Outdoor Theatre...Again

So, after a blistering start, the British summer has now reverted to type and is offering up a surly mixture of rain, thunder, gale-force winds and fleeting glimpses of sunshine. This happens every year, so surely only blind optimists and downright foolhardy types would continue to book tickets for theatre productions staged outdoors in the middle of the pot-luck English summer. And yet I notice that my diary is insisting I appear to be doing this very activity tomorrow night, having apparently signed up to see An Ideal Husband in Didsbury's Fletcher Moss Park.

As I obviously prefer to think of myself as an optimist rather than some kind of idiot, let us examine the reasons behind my devotion to outdoor theatre:

1. The company that we go to see every year, Heartbreak Productions, are brilliant. Over the years we have seen them perform all sorts of things - they always do a Shakespeare, a children's play, and a third play that this year has been snaffled by Oscar Wilde. Although the cast is slightly different each year, they are always irritatingly young, attractive and talented; it's not clever to be able to sing, dance, act AND play musical instruments, you know. Take a look at their website at if you don't believe me.

2. Ususally, the weather is lovely. We have only had one real disaster, when we saw Twelfth Night a few years ago - it poured and poured, and umbrellas were banned in the interests of the people at the back still being able to see (selfish). To make things worse, we had a persuaded another friend of mine to come along; she is Spanish, and was not amused by watching Shakespeare in the rain. We left at half time and drank wine at my house instead.

3. Last year my friend was volunteered by her young nephews to get up on stage during The Wind in The Willows and play the part of a prospective Mrs Toad. When asked what she could bring to the marriage she (accurately) replied that she was very good at opening champagne bottles. That's my girl. Mr Toad did go on to turn her down, but not until her sister had helpfully videoed the whole thing.

4. Picnics are obligatory, the more middle-class the better. Ideally, pop to M&S or Waitrose and purchase a range of items to include quiche, pork pies, potato salad, coleslaw, crisps, dips, strawberries, and pink wine. You then spread this out around you and proceed to consume it noisily throughout the performance.

5. The locations are beautiful. Tomorrow's play is in the exquisite Fletcher Moss Gardens; the Shakespeare one in August is at Wythenshawe Park, in the lovely gardens by the house. Although we do walk VERY quickly back through the park afterwards.

So, you see - actually not foolish at all. Although, if it's wet tomorrow I'll be wishing once again I'd coughed up for the undercover seats....

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Poetry Reading with Mike Garry (free wine! free wine!)

Those of you who know me - or sensibly just follow me from a safe distance via Twitter - will be aware that for the last two weeks I have been a horrid whinge-faced mard-arse; no, really, you're kind to say otherwise, but I fear 'tis true. Every summer I agree to mark 200 hundred A-level scripts, and every summer I sob through bitter tears that I will never, ever do it again. Of course, then the money appears in your bank account and the pain magically goes away; a little like childbirth, I imagine, only with a more flexible pay-off.

Anyway, I've finished the marking, quite unfeasibly a day ahead of schedule, and am back in the land of the living. However, in typical English-teacher fashion, I will be celebrating this evening not by lying on the floor while someone pours a bottle of wine into my mouth (although, God willing, this COULD still happen), but by attending a lovely poetry reading as part of the Oxfam Bookfest.

Manchester poet Mike Garry will be reading from the recently published "God is a Manc" at the Didsbury branch tonight from 7pm; I've not heard him read before but Helen from Didsbury Life says he's great, and I believe pretty much everything she says. The are no other reasons for me going, other than his excellent reputation and the joy of an evening filled with poetry. None whatsoever. Quite why he tweeted me saying there was free wine is, frankly, anyone's guess.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Review of Joseph (and his AMAZING Technicolour Dreamcoat, of course) at The Lowry, Manchester

Every so often, it pays to leave your good taste at home and, ignoring the scoffing and taunting of ignorant, blinkered friends, have a quite amazing night out. It is at this point that I should hold my hands up and admit that I like Andrew Lloyd Webber. I like his coy over-acting with Graham Norton. I like the ill-disguised pain etched all over his face when the camera switches to him during some caterwauling performance. I even like his throne. True, the sight of the Dark Lord clutching a pair of no-longer-needed sparkly stiletto shoes to his chest week on week during Over The Rainbow was a step too far, but all in all, I have a lot of time for him and his jaunty musicals; not least, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor (a registered trademark, apparently) Dreamcoat, currently showing at The Lowry.

Last time I saw this I think I was about ten, when I went on a school trip that I remember little about other than having an ice-cream at half time, and having to sit next to a horrid mean girl who I didn't like. So I had completely forgotten that not only is Joseph a musical, it is ALL MUSICAL - no pesky talky bits at all, just good, honest, over-enunciated singing. My traitorous friend, it turned out, had been secretly rehearsing for weeks with the aid of a Joseph soundtrack CD played on repeat in her car, and was therefore ready to sing along with everything, whereas it emerged that I only really knew the chorus of most songs, thus limiting me somewhat; for example "go go go Joseph, um, tra la la la la..."

No matter. We were sat right at the front, practically straddling the man with the electric piano (who sensibly had enormous headphones on, presumably to block out the unpleasantness of audience sing-along) and in serious danger of being blinded by Craig Chalmers' unfeasibly white teeth. He came fifth in the Any Dream Will Do show, and there is rather a whiff of cheese about him, with his orange glow and a thatch of yellow hair that would do nicely for a whole row of country cottages in need of a roof. Still, apart from the slow songs, which came across rather nasal, he did a decent enough job, although his Scottish accent did rather throw the aforementioned friend - her CD was mostly delivered in Australian, on account of it being the Jason Donovan version (serves her right).

The show itself? Just perfect - beautifully choreographed and performed (particularly by the eleven men playing Joseph's brothers), and with lovely aah-aah-aahs on Any Dream Will Do courtesy of a fleet of cute children from a school in Chester. Sadly the run ends tomorrow, or I would be pestering to go again; as it is, since I got home from the show last night I have communicated with my increasingly annoyed husband and cat entirely through the medium of song.

- The Lowry can be contacted on 0843 208 6000, or via their website at